THE LIFE AND INFLUENCE OF PABLO CASALS
by Marshall St. John
An ongoing serial story of the most influential cellist of the early 20th century.
I. Pablo Casals: His Youth
Pablo Casals, the great Spanish cellist, was born in Vendrell, a small Catalan town about
forty miles southwest of Barcelona. In a sense, Casals may be considered a Christmas present
to his family, and to the world at large, because God directed that he would be born on
December 29, 1876. For some unknown reason Pablo's father was two days late reporting
Pablo's birth to the Roman Catholic Church, and so the official registered date of his birth is
Pablo's father, Charles, was the organist in the church in Vendrell, and taught singing and
piano. He it was who gave Pablo his first lessons in singing and composition. Pablo's mother,
Senora Pilar Defillo de Casals, was born in Puerto Rico of Catalonian parents. She had one
German grandparent. The Casals name is of pure Catalan ancestry, dating back to the sixteenth
century. In those early days people took or were given names appropriate to their profession or
calling, or to some detail in their everday lives. The Casals in Catalonia were considered to be
of the Nobility, the upper crust, and were looked up to by the citizens of the area. In all, Pablo's
mother bore eleven children, nine boys and two girls. It is interesting to note that nearly all the
children died before reaching the age of 50, yet Pablo Casals lived to be ninety-seven!
By the time Pablo was four years old, he had learned to play the piano, the violin and the
flute. His father also taught him how to play the organ. Even at the young age of five Pablo
sang in the church choir, which was directed by his father, and composed music. At the tender
age of six, as he accompanied the choir, he was able to transpose on the organ any piece of
music, no matter how difficult. We are reminded somewhat of the precocity of another young,
but modern, cellist Yo Yo Ma. Ma was also taught by his father. His first instrument was the
violin, which he began playing at the age of three. Ma switched to cello almost immediately,
because his older sister was studying the violin, and he did not want to do what she did. Mr. Ma
gave his first public concert at the ripe old age of five, playing the piano in the first half, and then
a Bach cello suite. Casals credited his father's lessons in solfeggio, and insistence on his
singing in the parish church, thus familiarizing him with the Gregorian chant in childhood, as
providing him the solid base of his entire musical education.
I. Pablo Casals: His Youth (page 2)
As a young boy, Pablo Casals was like all boys everywhere. He attended the village school,
and enjoyed playing with the other children of Vendrell in all their ordinary games and activities.
Casals was an athletic boy, and led all his classmates in racing and high jumping. As with boys
everywhere, peer pressure had an impact on his life. By the time he was eight years old, he had
become quite a good violinist, and had performed Dancla's "Air With Variations" at a public
concert. But the boys of Vendrell made fun of him, and jeered at him as the "blind musician,"
due to his habit of playing with his eyes closed, and his head turned and slightly elevated. Stung
by their ridicule, Casals abandoned the violin, and searched for another instrument. It is an
interesting question: Where would cello playing be today if Casals had continued with the
violin? To a certain extent, the mockery of children has changed the history of the world.
The young Pablo Casals was proficient with the violin, piano, flute and organ. He also was
interested in some of the unusual instruments that were peculiar to his time and place. For
example, he learned to play the "gralla," an old Catalonian instrument, short and slender, that
looked like the small black plastic "song flute" that some public school systems use in teaching
music to children now. It played a scale of whole tones, only, and may still be heard in Vendrell,
on Fiesta days.
An odd group of musicians called "The Three Flats," visited in Vendrell about this time in
Casal's life. They used all sorts of rare and strange instruments, and mysterious contraptions
made of the odd scrap of wood, kitchen utensils, teapots, and whatever came to hand. Pablo
was fascinated! One instrument in particular caught his attention. It was a home-made "cello,"
constructed of a broom handle, and a gourd, and some gut strings. At Pablo's request, his father
made such an instrument for him, and in a very short time he was able to play anything on it, and
even gave "concerts" for his family and friends. This toy "cello," Pablo Casal's first, he treasured
and kept all his life.
I. Pablo Casals: His Youth (page 3)
In 1887 the Catholic Center of Vendrell sponsored some concerts by stringed instrument
performers. One concert was given by the Spanish cellist Jose Garcia of the Municipal School in
Barcelona. Here, the young Pablo Casals, for the first time in his life, heard the instrument which
would later bring him fame and fortune. Casals, only 10 years old, was deeply impressed by
Garcia's playing, and by the wonderful sound of the instrument. He immediately commented to
his father, "Father, do you see that instrument? That is what I want to play!" His father bought a
cello for Pablo that very week, and gave him his first lesson. The young Casals devoted himself
to practicing, and his family soon realized that he should study the cello seriously.
In 1888 Pablo's mother took him by train from Vendrell to Barcelona, and enrolled him in the
Municipal School, where he studied with Jose Garcia for three years. He studied harmony and
counterpoint with Roderedo, the director of the school; and made tremendous strides with the
cello. He won prizes in theory and composition. As the three years drew to a close, his cello
teacher, Garcia, boasted to his friends that his student Pablo could now play the cello better than
he could, himself!
An important aspect of Casal's musical education during these three years in Barcelona was
his experience as a performer in the various cafes of Barcelona. The young cellist, along with
other musicians, performed waltzes, and other light, entertaining music for the dining pleasure of
the patrons of the cafes, and learned at an early age what it was like to be in the spotlight, and
what it was like to actually earn a living as a musician.
Pablo, young as he was, led in establishing a classical program for one evening in each
week, where he was performing. Two interesting results came from this. First, he began to gain
popularity and a certain amount of notoriety. (We must remember that this was in the day before
there were radios, or recorded music. People simply did not hear music unless it was done in a
live performance.) People who loved good music began to hear of Pablo Casals, the boy cellist,
and to make special trips to the cafe to hear him play. The well-known Iberian composer Isaac
Albeniz was one such visitor, and he publically predicted a great future for Pablo.
Secondly, Casals began to need more pieces to play, and more variety. He began searching
for music that he could arrange for his group of seven, that was now playing in the cafes of
Barcelona. About this time his father came from Vendrell to visit him, and took Pablo to an old
music store on the Calle Ancha, on the waterfront. It was at this old music store where Pablo
Casals first discovered the Beethoven sonatas for cello, and on the bottom of a pile of old sheet
music, an edition of the six suites by Bach for cello solo. Casals says that when he saw these
Bach suites for cello alone, he was immediately absorbed by a mystical sense of purpose, and
felt an overpowering attraction to this music. He forgot his purpose of looking for music for his
group, and could think of nothing else but reading through and studying these suites. Casals
had never heard of the Bach suites, and reported that even his teacher, Jose Garcia, knew
nothing of them. Casals played and studied the Bach suites for ten years before performing any
of them in public.
I. Pablo Casals: His Youth (page 4)
Pablo Casals took formal cello instruction for only three years. He began studying with Jose Garcia at the Barcelona College of Music when he was twelve years old. At the age of fifteen he was well on his way to becoming the master of his instrument, and could learn no more from Garcia. Garcia was a good cellist, with a beautiful tone, accurate intonation and musical taste; but Casals was moving in a new direction. Casals, even in his early teens, was beginning to revolutionize the art of the cello. He wanted to get rid of all the unnecessary conventions and stiffness of the mode of performance of that time. Students then were taught to play with stiff right arms, even obliged to hold books in their armpits as they practiced. Casals advocated complete freedom of movement in the bow arm, including the elbow, making the whole bow technique stronger and easier. He was also already revising the traditional method of fingering, and the action of the left hand, seeking a natural way of playing. All contemporary cellists are walking in the footsteps, or at least beside the footsteps, of Casals, footsteps that he began making over a hundred years ago.
Casals had no other cello teachers than his father, Garcia, and himself. However, he did continue to study composition and chamber music. The Spanish composer Albeniz had become a close friend to Pablo and his family, and had been urging him to go to London to continue his studies on the cello. But Pablo's mother was not willing to allow him to travel so far away, alone, at the age of fifteen. Arrangements were made for Casals to travel to Madrid, accompanied by his mother. Casal's cello teacher Garcia was sure that in Madrid sufficient interest in Pablo would be aroused to secure him a governmental scholarship for study abroad. Albeniz gave Pablo a letter of introduction to the Count of Morphy, who was the private secretary to King Alfonso XII. It has been said that "...talent makes a way for itself." But it is also true that often, "...it is not what you know, but whom you know" that gets a person ahead in life. Both of these principles are evident in Casal's career.
Count Morphy liked Casals very much. He was a lover of fine music, and realized immediately that Pablo had the mark of greatness on him. Count Morphy arranged for Pablo to perform at the Royal Palace, and to study music at the Madrid Conservatory. The Count and Casals became close friends. He considered himself to be a "second father" to Pablo, and they remained in touch with one another until the Count died in 1900 in Switzerland.
Casals lived in Madrid for two years, studying counterpoint with Tomas Breton; and chamber music with a violinist, the celebrated Jesus de Monasterio, who was also the Director of the Madrid Conservatory. Breton was a leading Spanish composer, and had written the first genuinely Spanish opera. Count Morphy hoped that Casals would become another great Spanish composer, rather than a world famous cellist. In fact, he arranged for the Queen to give Casals a allowance that would enable him to continue his studies in composition, both in Madrid, and later in Brussels. Monasterio was an excellent teacher, and emphasized intonation and proper accentuation in chamber music performance. Casals grew musically under the influence of both these fine musicians. During these years he was taught privately by Count Morphy in the areas of art, philosophy and mathematics. The Count exerted a profound and lasting influence on the character of the young man.
After Pablo received the allowance from the Queen of Spain, his mother took him to Belgium by train, to the Brussels Conservatory, considered then to be the center of the finest string playing in the world. A remarkable incident occured there that is quite revealing about Casal's precocity on the cello, and about his strong personality.
I. Pablo Casals: His Youth (page 5)
Grateful for the generosity of the Queen of Spain, Pablo Casals and his mother departed for Belgium, with a letter of introduction to the illustrious Francois Gevaert, director of the Brussels Conservatory of Music. Gevaert was impressed with Casal's talents as a composer and cellist, and asked Pablo to meet the following morning with the Conservatory's professor of cello, Eduard Jacobs, which Pablo was very willing to do.
The next morning Casals attend Jacob's cello class, and he was not much impressed with the other students. As budding artists, they were mediocre. As people, they were prejudiced, proud and arrogant. They imitated the famous musicians of the time, with long hair and unneccessary mannerisms in their performances. Pablo was Spanish, short, and had extremely short hair. He was quiet, and unassuming in his speech and manner, and the other students did nothing to make him welcome in the class.
As the class period came to a close, Professor Jacobs turned his attention to Pablo, and spoke to him in a rude and mocking mannner. "So, are you the short Spanierd the director told me of? Would you like to play? Can you play this, and this, or this." Pablo quietly said he knew every piece, as Jacobs jokingly named them one by one. At last Jacobs challenged Pablo to perform Souvenir de Spa, by Servais, a virtuoso piece, in front of the class. "Show us how well you play!" He laughingly said.
Casals was so angry that he played without a trace of nervousness. As he began to play the room grew silent, except for the beauty of the music that was pouring out from his cello. Jacobs was stunned at the virtuosity and musicianship of Casals, and the students sat amazed in their seats. After the piece was finished with great brilliance, Jacobs dismissed the class, and took Pablo aside to speak with him privately. He apologized for making fun of him, and pleaded with him to enroll at the Conservatory in his class. He promised against all the Conservatory rules that Pablo would be given first prize in his first year at the Conservatory. Pablo, however, rejected Jacobs and his offer. He had been mocked and insulted publicly and he was utterly determined to have nothing to do with Jacobs and the Brussels Conservatory. When Pablo made a decision about a thing, no one could change his mind. He left Brussels for Paris the very next morning.
When the Queen of Spain heard of Casal's rejection of the Conservatory, she had little sympathy for Casal's feelings. She thought he was stubbornly throwing away a golden opportunity, and rejecting her sponsorship, and so she withdrew her financial support.
Casals, His Youth ( page 6) February 26, 1996
It was not stubborn pride alone that led Pablo Casals to turn down the opportunity of attending the Brussels Conservatory. He had an inner realization of the greatness of the musical and cellistic talents that God had given to him, and he realized that he was past the point of benefiting much from study there.
In his heart he felt that he needed to move to Paris. Count Morphy, back in Spain, was perplexed and frustrated by Pablo's decision to go there, but his mother, as always, understood Pablo's feelings, and did all she could to assist him in this move. Dona Pilar rented a small apartment in Paris, and lived there with Pablo, and another son, yet an infant. Casals said that his mother suffered great hardships in order to help him, even to the extreme of cutting and selling her long beautiful hair. Pablo's father in Vendrell sent all the money he could, but it was also necessary for his mother to sew to earn a little money, and provide food and shelter for the trio. Casals stated, "Oh! the suffering and the wonderful way of my mother then. She was a heroine!"
The working musician's life has often been hard and poor, and Casals now found it so. He found a position as second cellist in a vaudeville theatre, where he earned a few francs per day. It was tiring work, largely because the theatre was far from his apartment. He had no money for transportation, and walked many miles on dusty dirt roads to his job. Because of stress, hard work and lack of nourishment, Casals came down with with the fever. Realizing that trying to make it in Paris at this time was too much of a hardship for himself and his family, he quit his job in the theatre, and immediately returned to his home in warm, sunny Barcelona.
Copyright Marshall C. St. John